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New Law Clinic Handles Religious Liberty Cases

Publication Date: 
May 02, 2013
Stanford Magazine
Sam Scott

 James Sonne, Director of the Religious Liberty Clinic, spoke with Stanford Magazine's Sam Scott about the opening of the clinic, which originated from an idea of Professor Michael McConnell's, and responded to criticisms by reassuring that the clinic's work does not promote a single faith and will focus on both freedom of and freedom from religion as their casework requires.

In January, Stanford Law School drew national attention with the opening of its newest legal clinic, the only one in the country dedicated to cases involving religious liberty.

The opening docket showed how broad an array of issues sits beneath that umbrella. Cases included a Jewish prisoner blocked from getting a circumcision; two Seventh-Day Adventists fired from FedEx for refusing shifts on their Sabbath; and a Muslim congregation facing resistance to its planned mosque.

"There is really a great variety of substance a student can sink his or her teeth into," says third-year student James Wigginton, one of four students handling cases in the clinic's first quarter.

In a different year, Wigginton might have opted for the Supreme Court litigation clinic, one of a small number of law school programs that allow budding lawyers to work on cases bound for the highest court. But the advent of the religious liberty clinic offered an ideal match between his personal belief in the importance of religious freedom and a professional desire to grapple with a variety of complex legal issues from trial-level advocacy to appellate court briefing.

"It's the kind of topic that gets you out of bed in the morning and gets you excited about what you're going to do."

Funded in part by a $1.6 million gift from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit focused on protecting religious expression, the clinic originated as an idea of Law School professor Michael McConnell's. It opened to praise from religious leaders and scholars from as far away as Australia, as well as some notes of criticism.


James Sonne, the clinic's director, takes issue with the substance of both criticisms. The initial docket may have reflected only worshipers' complaints, but future cases will vary. Indeed, one potential client is an inmate appealing his sentence based on the judge's reliance on religious law, an apparent encroachment of religion into the public square.

Likewise Sonne rejects the possibility of promoting any one faith. The cases students represent can involve any religion. "Religious liberty is a universal human right shared by everyone regardless of your religious belief," he says.


Whether or not students specialize in religious liberty cases as professionals, Sonne points out that mastering cases that require a grasp of constitutional issues, statutory questions and the intersection of law, religion and culture will help them no matter what they practice. This clinic, like all the other Stanford Law clinics, focuses on making better lawyers, he says.